Ukraine flew a deadly wave of drones deep into Russia territory on February 28, with one almost reaching Moscow in a move that shook the Kremlin and called its ability to defend itself from a Ukrainian aerial assault into question.
Drones struck several regions in western Russia, although damage was minimal and only one fatality was reported. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered officials to tighten control of the Ukraine border in response to this rare attack on Russian territory.
One of the drones got within 100 kilometres of Moscow, breaching Russian defences and crashing without causing much damage. The attacks shook the Kremlin.
Ukraine authorities did not take responsibility for the attacks and have not commented officially on any of the attacks on Russian territory, but have claimed the right to hit back at Russia.
The drone fell near the village of Gubastovo, less than 100 km from Moscow, Andrei Vorobyov, governor of the region surrounding the Russian capital, said in an online statement, Reuters reports. Regional Governor Andrei Vorobyov said the Moscow-area drone apparently was targeting – but did not hit – a Gazprom gas distribution facility.
Pictures posted online showed it was a small Ukrainian-made model with a reported range of up to 800 km, but without the capacity to carry a large explosive payload, Reuters reports.
Until now the fighting has been largely contained within Ukraine and the West has been nervous about provoking Russia by giving Ukraine long-range missiles that can strike targets inside Russia. However, Ukraine has carried out a number of strikes using homemade drones and has hit airfields and oil refineries deep in Russian territory. Ukraine is also suspected of carrying out covert sabotage and arson attacks on Russian facilities and military bases in both Russia and Crimea to devastating effect.
In a similar incident, local authorities reported fire at an oil depot in Russia's Krasnodar region. A fire broke out at an oil depot in Russia's southern city of Tuapse at night on February 28, according to the city administration. Local news outlet 93.ru previously reported two explosions on the oil depot territory, citing Tuapse residents.
A huge explosion rocked a Russian airbase in Crimea last August in what may have been the first Ukrainian missile strike deep into the territory occupied by Russia since 2014.
In the most spectacular attack, the $4bn bridge that connects Crimea to Russia’s mainland was badly damaged by what appears to have been the explosion of a truck bomb on October 8 last year that killed the driver of the truck and several civilians in a passing passenger car.
In December, Russia said that three were killed from Ukrainian drone attacks on two Russian air bases lying hundreds of kilometres from the border. Ukraine did not claim responsibility for the attack, but if it did carry out the attacks, they were the deepest military strikes into Russia since the war started.
It appears that Ukraine has again launched several drones against a variety of targets inside Russia on February 28, as the fighting in Ukraine increasingly spills over into the regions on the Russian side of the border.
A teenage girl was killed in the Belgorod region on the Russian side of the border on February 28, after three drones reportedly attacked the region, and residents of the region are reportedly being evacuated as the situation becomes increasingly dangerous. Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said more than 3,700 people were forced to leave their homes due to shelling by Ukrainian forces recently.
One of the drones reportedly flew through an apartment window in the capital, local authorities reported, but Gladkov downplayed the incident, saying the drones had caused only “minor damage” to buildings and cars.
Earlier the same day, the governor’s official Telegram channel reported that the village of Ustinka near the border had come under fire from the Armed Forces of Ukraine. According to the official, shell fragments damaged three private households. Windows were smashed, and facades and fences were cut. Gladkov emergency services quickly arrived at the scene and began to evacuate residents as the situation became increasingly dangerous.
Russian forces shot down another Ukrainian drone over the Bryansk region, also on February 28, local Governor Aleksandr Bogomaz said in a Telegram post.
Russia's RIA news agency reports that three people were killed at another air base in Ryazan, 185 km southeast of Moscow, in another attack.
The Russian Defence Ministry reported the wave of Ukrainian drones had also targeted facilities in the Krasnodar region and neighbouring Adygea in the European part of Russia. The Defence Ministry said the drones had been shot down by “electronic warfare assets,” adding that one had crashed into a field and another was diverted from the facility it was supposed to attack, including the Engels air base near the city of Saratov, 600 km from the border, that houses bombers that are part of Russia's strategic nuclear forces, Reuters reports.
Commentators on social media noted that if Ukraine could strike Saratov then it must be also capable of hitting Moscow.
The ministry called the attack a "terrorist act" aimed at disrupting its long-range aviation. Russia responded with a "massive strike on the military control system and related objects of the defence complex, communication centres, energy and military units of Ukraine with high-precision air- and sea-based weapons", in which it said all 17 designated targets were hit, the ministry said in a statement cited by Reuters.
Also on February 28, several Russian television stations aired a missile attack warning that officials blamed on a widespread hacking attack that had affected several cities, including Moscow. An air raid alarm interrupted the programming of several TV channels and radio stations in several regions, which Russia’s Emergency Ministry dismissed as a hoax, in a statement.
Unconfirmed reports suggest an attack was also made on a Russian A-50 early warning and control aircraft at the Machulishchy air base inside Belarus, which Russia has been using as a bridgehead to launch bomber and missile attacks on Ukraine. High-resolution satellite images appear to show the bomber was damaged, reports AP, but the news agency was unable to confirm the information.
Russian officials confirmed that the drones near Moscow caused no injuries or significant damage. President Vladimir Putin has ordered security at the border to be stepped up. Russia has already installed anti-missile defences on the roofs of key buildings in Moscow, including the Ministry of Defence and outside Putin’s private residences, in anticipation of long-range missile attacks.
Ukrainian officials have not taken responsibility for the attacks, nor have they acknowledged responsibility for past strikes and sabotage. However, they emphasised Ukraine's right to hit any target in Russia, Reuters reports.
In a speech in Moscow on the same day, Putin did not refer to any specific attacks, but his comments came hours after drones targeted several areas in southern and western Russia.
The apparent attack comes a day after St Petersburg implemented its “carpet plan” protocols that closed the skies over Russia’s northern capital after an unidentified object was seen in the skies outside the city.
All flights into Pulkovo, the city’s main airport, were turned away as Russia’s air force scrambled jets to investigate. The restrictions were lifted at midday local time but the authorities have still not identified the object or given any further details.
Russia is widely expected to launch a major counteroffensive this spring and a possible second mass mobilisation, and Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently said that he believes this has already begun as Russia pours resources into the city of Bakhmut, the current epicentre of the conflict.
However, Kyiv is also expected to launch its own counteroffensive and strike Russian forces before the preparations for the mooted spring offensive are complete. Bankova has also said that it wants to liberate Crimea and has been calling on its Western allies for long-range missiles that can strike into the occupied peninsula from Ukrainian-held territory. Russia has large air bases in Crimea which is also used to supply the Russian Black Sea navy that controls the coast and blocks the ports still in Ukraine’s hands that are vital for its grain exports.